Two CU biologists win prestigious NSF awards
By Jim Scott
Two University of Colorado Boulder faculty members, both from the ecology and evolutionary biology department, have received prestigious National Science Foundation Early Career Development, or CAREER, awards.
The awards, which went to assistant professors Pieter Johnson and Rebecca Safran, are made to outstanding faculty in the early stages of their careers who effectively integrate innovative research and educational outreach.
Johnson was awarded $700,000 over five years to study how ecological diversity in natural communities can affect disease risk for amphibians, which are the most threatened class of vertebrates worldwide. One significant reason for the decline of amphibians is their vulnerability to infections by parasitic flatworms called trematodes, which burrow into tadpoles and larval salamanders and cause limb malformations in adults, increasing mortality rates.
Johnson hopes to identify the factors that control disease in natural ecosystems and better understand the role of parasites in ecosystem processes. The complex life cycle of the parasitic trematodes allows them to move from snails into larval amphibians, which causes malformed legs in adult amphibians. These adult amphibians then are often eaten by predatory birds like herons, which pass eggs of the trematodes back into the aquatic environment where they hatch and enter snails to repeal the cycle.
Johnson will be collaborating with National Geographic to enhance a “Citizen Science” program that involves members of the public reporting on deformed amphibians they encounter. In addition, he will work with several other organizations to develop a documentary to promote awareness of the issue, and will team up with a biology textbook publisher to design an educational module that is expected to reach tens of thousands of students annually in classrooms and through online learning programs.
Safran was awarded $850,000 over five years to study genetic differences in barn swallow populations to gain a greater understanding of how new species are formed. The goal of the effort is to measure the genetic variation and gene flow related to the adaptive evolutionary changes within swallow populations — including different combinations of sexual signaling traits — as well as changes due to geographic isolation among different populations.
Safran and her team will use cutting-edge molecular approaches using genomics and stable isotope analysis in their research efforts. The team hopes to understand how migratory behavior, climate change, sexual selection and geographic distance between swallow populations relate to genetic divergence and speciation, which is the evolutionary process by which new species are created. The study will allow “evolution in action” to be carefully documented and studied, Safran said.
The research effort will include international collaborators from 35 Northern Hemisphere countries and will provide training for students at various levels of education and involve extensive interdisciplinary research. Her grant also includes a number of public outreach efforts including a “Citizen Science” program and a project in collaboration with EcoArts Connections of Boulder in which people are encouraged to ride Boulder County buses and to chart and report on various bird species seen from the vehicles.
Johnson also was awarded a five-year, $875,000 David and Lucille Packard Fellowship in 2008 to support his studies of emerging diseases in changing environments.
Jim Scott is science editor at CU-Boulder’s Office of News Services.